Exploring Victorian Wine - The Yarra Valley Wine Region
The Yarra Valley wine region is the first area visited in the series on Victorian wine regions. The region is now just on the outskirts of greater Melbourne and is centred by the towns of Healesville, Yarra Glen, Coldstream and the historic township of Lilydale (see Map). These towns are the location of the majority of the regions wineries and vineyards.
There is a wonderful unevenness to Victoria's wine regions and none more so than the Yarra Valley. Unlike the many more ordered wine areas in Australia and overseas, the Yarra spreads outwards from the valley floor at Yering, running hard against a volcanic crater rim on its west and the peaks of the Great Divide on its northern and eastern flanks. The Yarra’s nooks and crannies are the valley at its most scenic and the vineyards use the land contours to perfection.
The Yarra Valley is Victoria's first wine growing region with the earliest plantings of vines taking place in the late 1830's. The first Yarra Valley vineyard, Yering Station was planted in 1838. Over the next 40 to 50 years the wine industry grew strongly with many wineries being established capturing national attention and winning international awards. This included Swiss immigrants encouraged by Charles La Trobe the Governor of Victoria, and his Swiss born wife. The golden era was dominated by Hubert de Castella who won prizes for his wines at the great exhibitions in Australia and Europe during the 1880s.
Household names were established during this early period including Yering Station, St Hubert's, Yeringberg, Yering Farm and Stringybark Creek .
However, increased demand for fortified wine especially from the Rutherglen region and the demise of table wines saw Yarra Valley wine production cease entirely by the 1930s. Dairying and beef quickly came back into production with the heavy soils and above average rainfall favouring this industry. The farming production continued on for the next 40 years or more and was a period when the wine-growing region was temporarily forgotten until the 1960's.
But the opportunities for potential wine growers remained and with the gradual resurgence of table wines replanting began in this period, when in 1963, Wantirna Estate was born. Soon, new vineyards and even some older ones popped up and the Yarra Valley region was back to doing what it did best. In 1989, even the original Yering Station was replanted.
By early 1990, the area under vine passed the high point of the 19th century period. The Yarra Valley is now recognised as one of Australia's foremost cool climate producers, capable of making classic styles from a wide range of varieties. New wineries in this period included Tarrawarra, De Bortoli's and Fergusson's.
Soil and Climate
As the topography of the Yarra Valley varies enormously the region encompasses a wide range of soil types. The soils in the middle section of the valley are ancient, mountain-derived sandy clay loams interspersed with broken sandstone. The other soil type is much younger in origin and is a highly friable, brilliantly coloured red volcanic soil found in both the upper and lower valley.
The Yarra Valley is cool in relation to the rest of Australia's viticultural regions. The region is cooler than Bordeaux but warmer than Burgundy. Elevation varies greatly from 50m – 400m. Rainfall is winter/spring dominant, with the summer relatively cool, dry and humid. There is also some limited maritime influence impacting on temperatures.
Harvest typically commences in early March with Pinot Noir and finishes with Cabernet Sauvignon in early May. These dates correspond to September and November respectively in the northern hemisphere. Frost is rarely a problem, but can affect the lower vineyards on the valley floor from time to time.
With a seven month growing season, rainfall of between 750-950mm (often less rather than more) and restricted water holding capacity in some soils, irrigation is considered essential, although the extent of its use does vary significantly between producers.
Well over a hundred wineries are now all striving to recreate the glories of the late 19th century. They include Domaine Chandon, a wholly owned operation of Moet and Chandon, the largest Champagne producer in France. This cool climate area has a growing reputation for the production of high quality sparkling wines. In fact, the sparkling wines of the Yarra Valley rival those of Northern Tasmania for the role of the premier sparkling wine of Australia. Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Chardonnay are also represented among the top wines for their classes.
The wines of the Yarra Valley are dominated by the major grape varieties especially the red varieties Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot, while the whites are dominated by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with a supporting role played by Semillon. This cool climate area also has a growing reputation for the production of high quality sparkling wines.
However there are also rich pickings for those who look for vinous pleasures outside this narrow range of classic varietals.
Pinot Noir is the Yarra Valley's most widely planted red grape variety. Whilst a challenge to grow and make, Pinot Noir thrives in the Yarra's cool climate.
Pinot Noir takes pride of place simply because the Yarra Valley has achieved more with this difficult variety than any other wine region in Australia. Slowly the essential nature of this grape is becoming better understood. While many wine drinkers dismiss it because it is so different to that of Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz, others appreciate its haunting delicacy and surprising length of flavour. For those who know Burgundian wines the strawberry plum spectrum of fruit flavours to be found in the Yarra is very exciting.
Pinot Noir also adds depth to the chardonnay component of some of the region's sparkling wine is superb as an accompaniment with duck, veal or new season lamb.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening variety, with flavours ranging from berry/chocolate to cedar/leathery. The variety is matured in French or American oak and sometimes blended with Merlot to flesh out the mid palate. The silky soft tannins of Yarra Valley Cabernet styles render them perfect to drink as younger wines – without detracting from ageing potential. Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with rare roast beef or premium cheese.
Shiraz and Shiraz/Viognier
Shiraz from the cool growing season of the Yarra Valley produces a style of great finesse. An array of flavours from pepper and spice to anise and plum can be savoured with game, lamb or beef.
Following the tradition of the great wines of the northern Rhone Valley in France, Shiraz is sometimes blended with the white variety Viognier (usually no more than 5%) which imparts a musk, apricot, floral character to the wine.
Appropriate site selection is critical for Shiraz in the Yarra Valley. The warm, north-facing slopes highly desirable are capable of producing intensely coloured and flavoured wines, redolent of black cherry spice and pepper. They are never too extracted or alcoholic and have those fine, silky Yarra Valley tannins.
Other red varieties
These include Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.
Chardonnay is the Yarra Valley's most widely planted white grape variety producing a range of styles. From complex, oaked wines to elegant restrained styles, Chardonnay is often made using traditional Burgundian winemaking techniques. This variety can be blended with Pinot Noir to form the base wine for the sparkling wine.
While there is a distinctive fig and white peach flavour substrate to all Yarra Valley Chardonnays, there is tremendous diversity in weight, texture and richness that partly reflects vintage variation and partly differing winemaking philosophies and techniques as well as vineyard terroir. What is undoubted is the capacity of the Yarra Valley to produce long-lived Chardonnay of the highest quality. Chardonnay compliments full flavoured seafood or poultry.
Sauvignon Blanc produces vibrant wines with full flavour and a crisp acid finish. These styles are generally un-oaked, although more recent styles are incorporating oak fermentation and maturation.
Sauvignon Blanc may be blended with Semillon to give a fuller, rounder flavour and aging potential. This is excellent as an aperitif or with fish, goats cheese or roasted vegetables.
Pinot Gris is thought to be a mutation of Pinot Noir and originated in France. From here it spread to the Italian Alps, where it became known as Pinot Grigio and was made in a lighter, more acidic style. Flavours include honey, pear or peach juice and a hint of vanilla. It can be served with contemporary cuisine such as lightly spiced Asian food.
Other white varietie
These include Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Marsanne, Rousanne and Verduzzo.
There are about a hundred wineries operating in the region, and all but a handful can be described as small or medium mostly growing the varieties mentioned above. The proximity to Melbourne makes this region eminently suitable for cellar door sales. Some of the best include Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander, Oakridge, Seville Estate, De Bortoli and Yering Station. Many of the wineries of the Yarra Valley have fine restaurants. The best include Innocent Bystander, De Bortoli, Yering Station, Tarrawarra Estate, Rochford and the Stones. The scenic beauty of the area adds to the appeal for visitors to the valley. But don't be mistaken - this area can hold it head high in any company on the quality of the wines it produces.
Visiting the Yarra Valley
As the valley adjoins the outer suburbs of Melbourne it can be easily visited as a one day wine tour. The Maroondah highway is the quickest and most direct route but the Eltham-Yarra Glen road is a more scenic route. However as here are so many wineries with cellar door sales and other attractions that staying one or more nights is also an attractive option. You can also combine a wine tour with sightseeing in the Yarra Ranges National Park, the Kinglake National Park, the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, or the National Trust's Historic Homestead at Gulf Station.
Accommodation options include hotels, motels, guest houses, cottages and B&B's. Some of the towns which are lovely for an overnight stay include Yarra Glen, Healesville and Warburton. There are many fine restaurants, many at the wineries and others in the towns.
The Yarra Valley is such a gorgeous place to visit with a rich history and being so close to Melbourne it is a must see on the Victorian wine tour circuit .